Two schools dealt with year-end threats. Social media changed how they were handled.

Schools across the U.S. are dealing with gun threats

Schools across the country are increasing security or closing as they deal with threats to safety in the wake of the Parkland, Florida attack.
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Schools across the country are increasing security or closing as they deal with threats to safety in the wake of the Parkland, Florida attack.

As the school year came to a close in Whatcom County two districts found themselves dealing with shooting threats and asked for heightened police presence to reassure both students and parents.

While Washington doesn't mandate what school districts must do to address threats or notify parents, how Blaine and Ferndale communicated with parents put district safety procedures in the spotlight — although neither threat was found credible.

On May 25, administrators at Horizon Middle School in Ferndale were made aware of a situation where an 8th grade boy told another student about "shooting up the school" in the last week, according to Superintendent Linda Quinn. The district immediately started its threat assessment protocol, which included contacting Ferndale police and requiring an emergency expulsion for the student, meaning the boy couldn’t return until the investigation into the threat was completed, Quinn said.

Throughout the next week, the boy underwent an independent professional mental health evaluation and law enforcement did a home safety check, where they found nothing of concern, according to Ferndale police.

The investigation found the boy’s threat wasn’t credible and he returned to school the week of June 4. Parents of other children in the district found out about the boy’s alleged threat and took to social media to express their concerns, with many saying they didn’t want to send their kids to school out of fear something would happen. Others shared their frustrations with the boy being allowed to return to school and what they called the district’s lack of transparency about the incident.

The social media uproar resulted in a meeting between Quinn and the boy’s parents, and ultimately they agreed that the boy shouldn’t return for the rest of the year, Quinn said. His last day was June 7.

“I understand we live in times where people are very worried about these things. So I consulted with the family and we jointly determined that it was not a good idea for him to be at school, it was causing disruption. Not necessarily because of anything he was doing, but because of the conversation that started swirling around him,” Quinn said. “I would not say we feared for his safety, but I’m always thinking about the good of every student and until we could sort things out, it did not feel like a welcoming environment for him.”

A district-wide note detailing the incident and the district’s response was sent out to parents on June 10, three days after the student’s last day and 16 days after the district became aware of the threat. In order to help put parents and students at ease, Quinn requested police presence at Horizon when possible during the last week. She said student safety is the district’s highest priority and they take every threat seriously.

Quinn said the incident didn’t result in any policy changes for how threats are handled, but administrators will be discussing how and when to alert parents in future situations.

“Our protocol worked well for assessing the level of threat. A thorough threat assessment indicated the student did not pose a safety risk,” Quinn said. “We will be talking more in the future about how we determine what should trigger notification to parents. In this case, widespread notification was initiated due to social media discussion and the number of questions we received, not due to the level of assessed threat by the student.”

A conversation about games

In Blaine, school administrators were also dealing with a potential school shooting threat during the last week of classes, prompting a safe school alert to go out.

On June 12, a fifth-grade student at Blaine Elementary School told a staff member he overheard a high school student on a bus in September say he would bring a gun on the bus the last day of school, according to district officials. The following day, on June 13, the student met with elementary and high school officials and a Blaine police officer to try to identify the older student. The district also reached out to other students from that bus to gather more information.

That afternoon, two high school students told the vice principal there was a small group conversation about video games involving weapons that took place on the bus over several days in September. The students acknowledged the conversation could have been interpreted as genuine, as it got intense at times, officials said, and this was likely what the fifth-grade student heard.

Starting around 11:50 a.m. on June 13, the Blaine School District home page displayed information on the alleged threat, a day after administrators became aware of the situation. The information was updated with more accurate information around 4:15 p.m. Thirty-second phone messages were also made to every student's primary telephone number directing parents to the website for more information.

The district found the alleged threat to be not credible, but out of caution the district had an extra adult staff member on that bus for the last two days of school, as well as a Blaine police officer on board the last day.

When there’s a generalized threat, the district’s policy is to alert the general population, said Tina Padilla, administrative assistant to the superintendent.

“It’s better to let parents know about things so they can make decisions and handle it on their end, rather than having it come out another way and having parents not feel like we’re communicating with them,” Padilla said. “It’s just a matter of good communication.”

Padilla said every threat is different and the district makes decisions on how to handle it based on the circumstances. She said the district is working with a company to develop a new website, social media presence and mobile app for fall, which will allow the district to send alerts and better communicate with parents and the public.

“We just feel like it’s better to give people accurate information than to let people make assumptions, which are typically inaccurate,” Padilla said. “We take any kind of threat seriously and we probably go overboard verifying that kids are going to be safe on campus and buses. We’ve always acted in that way and the only thing that’s changing is we’re going to do a better job communicating that with families.”

Ferndale has one full-time school resource officer, paid for by the district and police department, who patrols their campuses. Blaine has a part-time officer, but the district is negotiating for a full-time position, Padilla said.

A shooting a week

Nationally, there has been an average of one school shooting per week since Dec. 14, 2012 when 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., according to the Los Angeles Times. And more than 215,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the shooting at Columbine High School in April 1999, according to the Washington Post.

Washington state operates under a local-control mentality, leaving the decisions on how to handle threats and when to notify the community up to each individual district, according to Stephanie Liden, a communications consultant with the state of Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Liden said in light of national events this year, such as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and Sante Fe High School in Sante Fe, Texas, it’s possible discussions for recommendations or guidelines may be started in next year’s legislative session.

For other local Whatcom County school districts such as Bellingham, the district has had a director of school safety and emergency management since 2015 who coordinates responses to threat situations.

The Bellingham district uses a tool called SchoolMessenger that sends out text, phone call and email alerts to families when needed during emergent situations, said Jonah Stinson, the director of school safety and emergency management. They also provide a Q&A section on the district homepage answering frequent safety questions.

The district has one full-time Bellingham police officer who acts as a district resource officer for all schools, as well as full-time security staff at the high schools.

Stinson said the district recently added new protocols relating to action taken before emergency responders arrive and distinguishing between a school lockdown, where each individual classroom is sealed, and a school lockout, where no one is let in or out of the school.

“The occurrence of recent high-profile tragedies has put school safety in the national spotlight this year. While these occurrences have potentially increased the visibility and conversation around school safety topics, we work every day to ensure the safety and well-being of our kids and staff. The field of school safety is dynamic and constantly changing; as such, we are always looking to stay current with best practices and adapt our protocols accordingly,” Stinson said.

Denver Pratt: 360-715-2236, @DenverPratt